Will the Next Farm Bill Boost the US Hemp Industry?

The cannabis plant is legal at the federal level in the United States. That is, if it contains low enough levels of THC to meet the definition of hemp. 

But the point stands: since 2018, state and federal agencies have been crafting regulations for the growing, processing, and testing of the cannabis plant, as an industry has manufactured a wide range of products from cannabidiol (CBD) to flooring material. Also since 2018, the production of hemp has boomed and busted amid a reality check around both demand and regulatory uncertainty. 

On Thursday, the House Committee on Agriculture’s Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture, and Research held a hearing to determine how the 2023 Farm Bill might provide fixes to the landscape that the 2018 Farm Bill ushered in when it legalized hemp. More specifically, the 2018 bill removed cannabis plants containing .3% THC or less from the Controlled Substances Act, while higher-THC cannabis plants, more commonly known as “marijuana,” remain federally illegal.

Witnesses at the hearing, titled “An Examination of the USDA Hemp Production Program,” included: Brandy Phipps, an assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural & Life Sciences at Central State University in Ohio; Marcus Grignon, the executive director of Hempstead Project Heart in Wisconsin; Eric Wang, the CEO of Ecofibre in Kentucky, representing the U.S. Hemp Roundtable; Ryan F. Quarles, the commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture; and Kate Greenberg, the commissioner of the Colorado Department of Agriculture.

“I think it’s noteworthy to mention that this is really the first hearing that the House Committee on Agriculture has held on hemp, ever,” said Rep. Jim Baird, the subcommittee’s ranking member, at the start of the hearing. 

The testimony also ranged widely, reflecting not only the myriad uses of the hemp plant, but the myriad complexities in its regulation. 

Phipps work on hemp includes research funded by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on “evaluating the chemical constituents of smoked and vaped hemp products,” according to her written testimony, and, more pertinent to the topic of the day, a study funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) called the SUSHI (Sustainable Use of a Safe Hemp Ingredient) project. The SUSHI project is a five-year, $10 million undertaking that is focused on hemp as animal feed.

“Exploring ways in which we can open up additional markets in the hemp sector, including establishing hemp as a safe feed ingredient, could provide new grain markets for the hemp sector and sustainable feed,” Phipps said on Thursday. “Importantly, studies indicate that incorporation of hemp into feeds may provide key improvements to the nutritional profile of those animal products, thereby enhancing human health.”

Her written testimony went further in depth, examining current hurdles, namely that it “remains unclear” exactly “how much cannabinoid residue from hemp grain and derived products” ultimately “transfers to feeds and animals,” which “leads to safety concerns and hinders the approval for use in feeds.”

One of the aims of the SUSHI project is “to determine the safety and efficacy of using hemp feed ingredients in a trout aquaculture system,” her written testimony continued. 

It ended with a list of current “limitations” that the 2023 Farm Bill could address, from access to capital for hemp processors to lifting some of the restrictions around THC testing that currently create additional steps for hemp farmers that don’t exist corn and wheat, and that hinder “breeding regionally adapted crops.” (Read Cannabis Wire’s coverage of hemp in animal feed.)

Wang focused on CBD, and the ’s slow pace of crafting regulations. As Cannabis Wire has reported, the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill not only legalized hemp, but all of the cannabis plant’s compounds other than THC, like CBD. However, in 2018, the approved the first pharmaceutical containing a compound – in this case, CBD – extracted directly from the cannabis plant, as opposed to synthetically created. This put the agency in a bind, as compounds in FDA-approved drugs cannot be added to foods and supplements under current federal food and drug law, but foods and supplements containing CBD are already widely available on the shelves of mainstream shops and online.

“CBD commerce and investment has been chilled due to continued inaction at the federal level, which has impaired economic opportunity for American farmers and processors,” Wang said.

“Consumers have also been impacted,” he continued. “Bad actors sell products without appropriate safeguards and mislead consumers with false label claims.”

Wang pushed for the 2023 Farm Bill to allow for CBD and other hemp derived compounds to be in dietary supplements.

Quarles echoed some of Wang’s sentiments, saying that the “biggest issue facing hemp today” is the “lack of direction from the FDA.” The has made mostly incremental announcements related to CBD, including its Cannabis-Derived Products Data Acceleration Plan

“If the FDA gave us direction, more private sector investment in hemp products would occur, and many well-known consumer brands will have tremendous interest in hemp products,” he said. “We’re waiting on the FDA to do their job.”

Indeed, as Cannabis Wire has reported, the Consumer Brands Association, which includes major companies like Coca-Cola and Kellogg’s, has been clear that its membership is “CBD curious” but staying away due to a lack of federal regulation.

In his written testimony, Quarles, also the former president of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, called for specific changes at the federal level, while making clear that he does not support proposals to lift THC testing requirements for hemp grown for certain uses, like fiber.

One suggestion he made focused on compounds like delta-8 THC, which is a “synthetically created” compound that can be made from CBD, but, unlike CBD, can make a person high. He proposed modifying the definition of hemp in a way that “eliminates the word ‘derivatives,’” which has led to a legal gray area around delta-8, but keeps the word “extracts,” which would protect natural extracts like CBD.

He also called for raising the amount of THC allowed in hemp to 1%, and making this a “total THC” threshold, rather than just a “delta-9 THC” threshold, which he wrote “better reflects the material’s true intoxicating potential.” 

And finally, he suggested separating this threshold for hemp plants from the one for “consumer-ready hemp products.” He used the example of a candy bar that weighs 1.76 ounces, or 50,000 milligrams, and noted that a hemp-derived THC allowance of .3% would translate to 150 mg of THC. For comparison, most states with legal adult use cannabis programs recommend a THC serving size of 5 milligrams, which is more than enough to get an infrequent consumer high.

Greenberg provided testimony last, and gave examples of barriers that the 2023 Farm Bill could address, such as lifting the requirements that hemp farmers undergo a background check, or that hemp be tested at Drug Enforcement Administration-registered labs. She noted that even the Colorado Department of Agriculture has yet to receive its DEA approval. She also called for federal grants for state hemp programs, and the speeding up of regulations that would allow for hemp in animal feed.

As one of the states with the highest number of acres devoted to hemp production, Colorado’s data provide a glimpse into the national hemp industry. 

After the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, Greenberg wrote in her testimony, “registered hemp acreage in Colorado increased sharply to 87,408 acres in 2019” but has since “dramatically decreased to the current 3,698 registered acres in 2022.” A major factor? “The 2019 surplus production that has not yet been depleted.” 

And, as for the significance of CBD in this conversation, roughly 60% of the hemp grown in Colorado is for “cannabinoid extraction,” with “seed and grain” around 25%, and “fiber and other industrial uses” around 15%, and seemingly on an upward trajectory. 

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